August 19, 2021
I detest dinner parties, partly because they never seem to include interesting people. I may have to attend, but I will not be talking about football, golf or the Kardashians. Politics is a subject that just results in a fight.
Besides, it annoys my wife when we leave early with a wave of curse words chasing us out the door.
The closest I have come to a conversation about hunting with my neighbors is when one lady sarcastically asked, "Is there anything you won't hunt?"
"If it's legal I'll hunt it."
That concluded the conversation.
My attitude toward hunting anything, though, has led to some grand adventures. Here are three "offbeat" hunts on public land that are well worth doing if you want to try something different.
1. Elk of the Eastern Shore
Sika deer are native to Asia and in fact are not deer at all, but instead are elk. Little elk to be sure; the stags run about 90 pounds and the females about 70 pounds. They bugle like elk but with a different pitch. And unlike most elk, sika live in swampy areas. Sika were turned loose on the Maryland coast in the early 1900s, and today they are thriving.
A few years back a couple of buddies and I did a DIY muzzleloader hunt for sika on the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County. It was, to say the least, an education.
Sika are spooky little critters living in some of the toughest terrain to hunt. I saw a few during the first days of the hunt as I felt the place out, but they were just too spooky to still-hunt in the thick swampland. They all ran off before I could even think about shooting.
Trying a different approach, I moved to the more open trails. It turned out that they were filled with hunters who must have been afraid of getting lost, as most posted in stands right on the trails. Despite their chosen locations that were not, to say the least, off the beaten path, several hunters still got annoyed when I walked past their stands.
I hunted in hip boots and a mosquito net most of the time. Not only were the mosquitos prevalent, but the rumor was they got kicked out of hell for being too mean. Plan accordingly.
I had been told in advance that the best way to hunt sika is to find a little high ground in the swamp. The deer like to hang out on that, I suppose because it provides a dry place to sleep. On the last day I sat down against a tree and waited. An hour or two later I managed to shoot a young stag. He wasn't huge, but I can say that the meat was excellent.
I learned a lot from that hunt, but I am hardly an expert. The next time I will bring a climbing treestand as I found dozens of places where this would have made a big difference. It's hard to see from the ground in the thick swamp, but a little elevation could change everything.
When I return, I may look at other location options as the wildlife refuge was a bit crowded, although I suspect any public land in the area will draw numbers of hunters. But with a good plan, I think even crowded public land could be productive, as the sign indicated a large population of resident sika. I just didn't know enough the first time to have a good plan.
I saw a very good stag one night in my headlights as I returned to the hotel, and most evenings I would stand by my truck after dark and listen to the stags bugle. I have heard and hunted elk in the Rockies and red deer in Argentina and now the little elk in the swamps. The bucket list is getting shorter.
2. Winter Ghosts
The "varying" part of the varying hare's name refers to the animal's coloration. This hare is brown in the summer and white in the winter except for the tips of its ears and its eyes. When hunting, the trick is to look for those ear tips or eyes rather than the entire hare. The hare's shade of white will usually be just a bit different than the snow, so the first time you see one running through the spruces in winter you will swear you have just seen a ghost.
It is also called the snowshoe hare. The reason is because of another adaptation designed for survival. Snowshoe hares are small animals, about 8 or 9 inches high at the shoulder, 21 inches long and 3 to 4 1/2 pounds. Yet they have huge, 5 1/2-inch long, four-toed back feet that are covered with thick, long hair. They can spread those toes to make a huge footprint compared to their body size. This lets them run over deep snow to escape predators. It also allows them to reach fresh vegetation when the snow piles up. As winter deepens and the snowpack increases, the snowshoe hare is constantly accessing new food sources and living large.
"White rabbits" (as the locals call them in Vermont) leave a lot of sign, including their distinctive tracks, droppings and the chewed-up trees they feed on. They usually follow prescribed paths, which by late season can become very pronounced and easy to spot. In fact, their paths can be worn so deep into the snow that often all you see are the tips of their ears when they run past.
Hares prefer thick evergreen forest; they love cedar and balsam, particularly if it is mixed with some young hardwood growth. Look for them in the mixed alder and evergreen swamps along beaver bogs and low-lying streams, as well as in the thick evergreens often found at higher elevations. Any place within their range that offers them thick cover to hide in, mixed with good food sources, will almost always hold hares. They can eat just about any vegetation, but in the winter, when we hunt them, they prefer the soft bark of young trees. This feeding activity is easy to spot with the fresh scars on the trees showing bright.
Varying hares can be hunted without dogs. They have a 10-year population cycle and when the population is high, hunting without the aid of a dog can be productive. When the cycle is low, it can be frustrating. If you have a very fresh snowfall, it's possible to track a hare from its feeding grounds back to its form, or hiding spot. Or you can simply work through the habitat, being quiet and staying ready for a fast shot as the critter loses its nerve, breaks from cover and runs for safety.
They will often hide under low evergreen branches, and you will not see them until they bust from cover. Hitting a running hare requires an open-choked shotgun and some highly developed reflexes and shooting skills. The varying hare can run up to 30 mph, which equates to 44 fps. They can jump up to 15 feet while on the run and can turn 180 degrees in mid-air. An overconfident wingshooter can be reduced to tears of frustration when trying to hit one that's intent on vacating the area.
When the predator activity is low (rare in these days of reduced trapping and no raptor control), hares will sit on more open forms and rely on their camouflage and senses to protect them. If you are lucky, you will spot them before they run. A .22 rifle works well under these conditions.
But by far the most common and productive way to hunt the varying hare is to use dogs, usually beagles. It's been a big part of my life off and on since I got my first beagle, Barney, back in the mid-1960s. When the dogs strike a hare and the chase is on, the world will fill with the best winter music on earth, the sound of hounds in full cry.
The varying hare knows it can outrun any dog alive. It relies on speed to defeat its enemies. Hares run in a circle when chased, and that habit is what sends them to the game bag.
Once the chase is on, a smart hunter will go to where the hare already has been. He will hide there and stay still, gun up and ready. It's important to keep in mind all the stuff that wants to eat hares has made them wary; never underestimate their ability to detect you. Those big ears are made for hearing, so you must be quiet. They see very well, particularly movement, so you must be still.
The hare will usually circle back, either along the same track or very close to it. Realize that the hare is often way ahead of the dogs. A lot of them owe their lives to that fact as the hunter is listening to the dogs some distance back and not paying attention when the hare runs past.
No matter how you approach it, hunting these great white rabbits of the North is a wonderful way to beat the winter doldrums. They can be hunted throughout the North Country, but Vermont is the place I know best. Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest and the Northeast Kingdom have a lot of land open to public hunting, and are great places to look for snowshoe hares. You can take the DIY route or hire a guide with dogs for a reasonable price. Two that I have hunted with are Pete Richardson (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Cory Curtis (email@example.com).
This can be an exciting and challenging hunt, particularly if you have never walked through a thick alder swamp on snowshoes! Bring a good shotgun and a sense of humor. You are going to need both.
3. Muskrat Madness
Throughout much of my life, there were three important dates: the opening days of trout fishing, deer season and muskrat hunting. I don't know how many other states allow hunting for muskrats, but in Vermont it's a tradition among a small segment of hunters. The spring season coincides with the muskrat's breeding time, which puts male muskrats on the move.
Muskrats live in marshy areas, beaver ponds and sometimes along rivers where they tunnel into the banks to make dens. Look for their feeding platforms, where they build up vegetation to form a place to sit and eat, as well as their lodges. These mounds resemble a beaver’s house, except they are smaller and made of pushed-up vegetation rather than larger sticks and branches.
My preferred way to hunt them is from a boat or canoe, quietly making my way through a marsh or floating on a river. When there are two of us aboard, the call of "rat in the water" alerts the shooter in the front of the boat that a swimming muskrat has been sighted.
Other hunting methods include wading the marshes or simply taking a stand on the bank to wait for active muskrats. Slipping along the higher ground adjacent to a marsh or river gives the hunter the advantage of being above the water. I have heard that some people call muskrats, but I have never tried it.
A head shot makes a quick kill and prevents the muskrat from escaping into the marsh or down a burrow. A .22 LR with a hollow-point load works best. Of course, always be aware of the background behind the muskrat.
The fur of these "rats" was once valuable. As a young man I trapped muskrats and beavers for a living during a couple of winters, but the do-gooders have all but destroyed the fur market. Still, you should stretch and dry the pelts. They make interesting trophies with the fur side out on a stretcher. You can sell them, but don’t expect to get rich. The meat is very good; just remember to remove all the glands.
Vermont has a lot of public land open to hunting. The Champlain Valley on the west side of the state is a good bet to find places to hunt muskrats, but the entire state is full of marshes and rivers, many of them on public land. Unique opportunities await.